Drought, hay shortages, pushing Central Oregon cattle ranchers to the brink

August 19, 2021
Drought, hay shortages, pushing Central Oregon cattle ranchers to the brink

For Madras-area farmer JoHanna Symons, the lack of available water this year to operate her cattle feedlot is hitting hard. Without water to grow hay, combined with rising prices to buy the hay she needs, Symons says losing her farm is a growing risk.

To head off financial turmoil, Symons says she plans to sell her 4,000 head of cattle in November. Whether or not she will be able to buy cattle again remains an open question.

“We won’t be able to bring in more (cows) because we have no commodities,” said Symons, a North Unit Irrigation District patron. “Because of the Western (states) drought, there are no commodities clear across the West. We have been clear across to Colorado, and it’s just not available.”

Water shortages for farmers in Central Oregon are the result of multiple factors, including drought, porous irrigation canals and antiquated irrigation systems. Farmers also point a finger at the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan, which sets flows in the river to support aquatic wildlife, including bull trout and the Oregon spotted frog.

For Symons, the water shortages meant cutting in half the fields she can plant with corn, hay and alfalfa. More water cuts were made midseason after an exceptionally dry spring. Symons received 1 acre -foot of water this season.

Most farmers in the North Unit last year were allocated 1.25 acre-feet of water, compared to 1.5 acre-feet in 2019. When water supplies are plentiful, patrons can receive 2 acre-feet of water. An acre-foot of water is the amount of water to cover 1 acre of land in 1 foot of water.

“We planted corn in June, spent tens of thousands on seed, fertilizer, water and so on. Then we were cut back to an eighth of a foot, so it basically lost our crop,” said Symons.

Symons said the crop losses prevent her from buying more cattle due to the expense of buying pricey hay and alfalfa.

According to Hay & Forage Grower, a website that tracks commodity prices, the price of premium alfalfa hay a year ago was $190 to $250. That range has since risen to $200 to $285.

Todd Nash, president-elect of the Oregon Cattleman’s Association, said all hay allotments have been spoken for, and there is nothing available for on-the-spot purchases.

“There is no hay available at any price at this point,” said Nash.

Some ranchers are trying to outbid existing contracts, offering up to $300 a ton, said Nash.

Nash said in spring some cattle ranchers stocked up on hay, anticipating a shortage, which has contributed to the scarcity of the commodity.

“It was like buying toilet paper during COVID,” said Nash. “In some cases (people) secured more than what they needed.”

Jefferson County dairy farmer Jos Poland said he has been fortunate to maintain a source of hay, but he worries that his hay provider may break his contract and cash in on the bidding war.

“If someone goes to my hay grower and offers a lot more money, what is he going to do?” said Poland.

The water and hay problems aren’t limited to Jefferson County. Farmers around Bend are feeling the pinch too.

Rob Rastovich, a third-generation farmer at Rastovich Farms east of Bend, said his farm can’t survive another year of drought.

“All but one field has dried up. The operation is in jeopardy of being able to continue,” said Rastovich, whose beef is sold at Central Oregon Locavore in Bend. “Another year like this will be the death nail.”

Jefferson County farmers say the crisis that is rippling across their community could hit consumers in the form of higher prices at the checkout stand.

“I think there is a real possibility that we could see a food shortage in the store at some point,” said Poland. “By that time, if I still have my herd, it will take a couple of years to build up my cow numbers again.”

Meat prices are already on a steady march upward. By the end of 2021, wholesale beef prices are predicted to increase between 13% to 16% above 2020 levels, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Price hikes are due to weather, feed costs and supply chain disruptions.

But Rastovich said large numbers of cattle could be sold in the fall due to the lack of fodder, which would tamp down steer prices.

“Supply will be very high, demand will be low; no one will want to buy them, so prices will drop out,” said Rastovich. “I would expect the price of cows to go really low come November or December.”

While there are no easy answers for Central Oregon farmers, Poland believes a community effort is needed to resolve the problems affecting farmers.

“Farmers are not the end-users of the water,” said Poland. “We just need the water to grow the food. The people who buy the food in the store are the true end-users of the water.”

Meanwhile, water has become so precious on the Symons farm that JoHanna and her husband, Jeremy, are letting their cows have first dibs in the daytime. The couple has access to the water at night.

“The hotter it gets, the more the cattle drink. By the time it gets to our house there is none left each day,” said Symons. “The cows don’t drink a lot at night so our water is able to come back on. That is when we do laundry and take showers.”

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